Skip to main content

My Advice for Accepting Religious Condolences as an Atheist

Kylyssa is an American atheist with high-functioning autism trying to navigate a mostly religious world with no well-beaten path to follow

How to Accept Overtly Religious Condolences as an Atheist

When someone we love dies, the last thing anyone wants or needs are empty and trite religious platitudes. No, that sentence didn't need the word "atheists" in it; grieving people of all sorts don't get any benefit from un-felt mutterings. They aren't helpful. They aren't even kind. They appear to be just some kind of social convention certain people feel obligated to fulfill. Unfortunately, many of us are stuck getting them when we are least emotionally able to handle them.

Minimizing the Stress and Pain Religious Condolences May Cause

Over the years, I've figured out how to make what seem like meaningless, token, trite, or unfeeling supposed condolences from religious people less painful for me to experience. I wish I'd had that information years ago because religious expressions of sympathy have sometimes been unwelcome, grief-magnifying intrusions during my times of loss. They made me feel isolated, disrespected, and unwanted, and they interfered with my mourning process. They made me feel like the people who uttered them didn't give a damn about my dead loved ones—and certainly not about me.

I've also learned how to accept and appreciate the genuine religious offerings of condolences in the spirit of their intent. While the trite condolences might make some non-believers angry, I actually think that heartfelt sympathy expressed through a religious lens can be harder to truly appreciate in the spirit with which they are intended than the meaningless lip-service type of babbling is to ignore or put aside.

I wish I'd known these things and developed these strategies a long, long time ago. It would have saved me a lot of completely unnecessary pain and feelings of alienation. That's why I decided to share them.

I don't know if any of my suggestions will be of any use to you, but I hope they are. I'm not a therapist or grief counselor; I'm just an atheist human being who has repeatedly suffered grief in religion-saturated circumstances.

I believe we should do what we can to limit needless suffering in any way we are able. This page is an amateur, but heartfelt, attempt to reduce the pain of atheist, agnostic, and non-believing grieving people of all sorts.

Learn how to gracefully accept overtly religious condolences from people who know you are a non-believer and come to understand how they are intended.

Learn how to gracefully accept overtly religious condolences from people who know you are a non-believer and come to understand how they are intended.

An Explanation for Why Overtly Religious Condolences Can Be Upsetting or Offensive

Atheists don't believe the same thing you do as a believer. To a nonbeliever, God and Heaven are not real beings or things, so when you say, "He's in a better place" it sounds an awful lot like you are saying the loss didn't happen.

Pretend someone you love has died. Pretend people keep coming up to you and, instead of saying they are saddened by your loss, they keep saying that it's OK, your loved one is waiting for you in a luxury colony on the moon. Or they say you'll join him when you die if you only believe hard enough in the luxury colony on the moon and the immortal person who runs it. Mind you, they know you don't believe in the luxury colony on the moon or the immortal who runs it. Now, imagine they take it further and use the death of your loved one to try to sell timeshares to the luxury colony on the moon. Imagine how those things would make you feel. Replace luxury colony on the moon with Heaven and immortal who runs it with God and that's about how I feel when people start evangelizing to me when I've lost a loved one.

If none of those analogies help you understand, let's try something else. How would you feel if someone came to your loved one's religious funeral and took the opportunity to speak about how they feel God and Heaven are not real and that anyone who doesn't share their belief is a fool?

Sometimes, It's Enough to Make an Angel Do a Facepalm

Sometimes, It's Enough to Make an Angel Do a Facepalm

Sometimes, It's Enough to Make an Angel Do a Facepalm

Assign a Positive Meaning to the Trite Condolences, and Say Thank You

I realize how weird that sounds. Remember that this is part of a strategy to reduce your pain. This is about you getting through the funeral and all the grieving days ahead when people may say completely meaningless and sometimes even un-felt crap to you.

You obviously can't make the words mean anything real to the people who say them. They are sometimes only speaking them because they think it's appropriate to be heard saying them to you even if they don't actually care about you or mean them. Even if religion didn't exist, the people who use trite religious condolences they don't even really mean probably still wouldn't have anything appropriately caring to say.

Also, perfectly lovely people who care about you may get flustered, nervous, or otherwise feel helpless in the face of your grief and one of these damned things might pop right out of their mouths. The words probably don't mean much to them, either, except that they are struggling to find something to say. But it's important to remember that they do care. Death is hard to talk about for everyone and they can't be blamed for falling back on comfortable old sayings when they're groping for words.

So, how can assigning meaning to the meaningless help anyone? I've found I can mitigate the damage by replacing a blank and empty thing that naturally triggers unpleasant feelings toward the person saying it with something that honors my dead loved one.

If someone tells me "(s)he's in a better place" or some other variant suggesting my loved one is better off dead and hanging out in heaven I think of her/him in a better place, not now or in the future, but in the past. I picture my mom dancing or sitting on the steps covered in kittens and giggling, digging up the memories that remind me how lucky I was to have known her. I picture my father sitting in the rocking chair next to mine on the porch and listening to my crazy ideas about anything and everything and telling me his. I think of him with a smudge of dirt on his nose smoothing wet concrete with a trowel to build me my very own life-sized elephant statue.

I take a moment to remember the heaven we sometimes shared right here on earth. It might make me cry, but it's a more healing pain, an actual recognition of what I've lost that is a more natural and healthy part of the grieving process than anger at people acting like thoughtless dingbats.

Scroll to Continue

I use that technique as often as it applies and as long as I can endure it. If the trite condolences are of some other variety and I feel the person is just giving them and me lip service, I just write over their words in my mind and replace them with a funny mental dialog about how eager they are to be seen comforting me. It could probably be anything funny, but that appeals to my rude sense of humor. I think it's okay to silently and secretly poke fun at someone who cares only about appearances and their own social status in the face of someone else's raw grief. Maybe I'm a big meanie, but it seems to help me to not hate them.

There's Something Heartfelt in There Somewhere

When friends and family offer heartfelt but overtly religious words of sympathy, try to remember they are just trying to show they care.

When friends and family offer heartfelt but overtly religious words of sympathy, try to remember they are just trying to show they care.

What Do They Really Mean If Their Religious Condolences Are Heartfelt?

But what about when people we are certain hold us in esteem use these empty-seeming religious phrases of condolence? If the lame language comes from someone I know cares about me and my loss, I write over the words in my head with the most perfect and profound words which a woman who loves me once said when I suffered a loss. Those perfect words were, "I love you."

So every time someone I care about offers me a religious condolence, I just imagine they are saying "I love you" instead of "she's with Jesus" or "we're praying for you."

Forget the words; remember the love behind them.

Being kind has no denomination. Sincerely wanting to comfort someone when someone he or she cares about dies boils down to caring.

Just say thank you, and take these words to mean your loss is recognized and you are cared for.

The Kindly Christian-to-Atheist Grief Dictionary

Religion gives a ready-made format for expressing grief and perhaps even for experiencing it that has existed for centuries and has been honed to a point over all that time. Some of it has become so stylized the people using those social conventions sometimes seem like they don't even understand what they are saying on any more than a superficial level. They may have never even thought about it in any depth because that's the way it's always been in their lives.

Religion provides some language for grief that just really doesn't translate into condolences that mean anything whatsoever on a secular level. But some of it does translate fairly well. Unfortunately, there's no Atheist-Christian grief dictionary anywhere I've searched and it looks like we're going to have to make the Rosetta stone ourselves.

Mind you, this will probably be the shortest dictionary you'll ever read. It's also intended to be at least a little bit tongue-in-cheek. If you have a kind addition to it, please share it in the guestbook below. This is only my idea of what religious people mean if we strip off all the religion and get to their intent.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2015 Kylyssa Shay

How Do You Accept Overtly Religious Condolences, Both Heartfelt and Trite, as a Non-Religious Person?

Chazz from New York on May 03, 2016:

I have to attend a family funeral at the end of this week and am sending this to all family and friends who belong to organized patriarchic religions. It won't stop the proselytising, and may, in fact, increase it. However it may help the rest of my immediate family to adopt your attitude, which I already share but have been unable to convince them on my own.

Thank you.

Kylyssa Shay (author) from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA on January 20, 2016:

I have no idea what this means, but thank you for reading.

Char Milbrett from Minnesota on January 20, 2016:

Jesus didn't believe in offering sympathy for your loss. He knew better.

savvydating on July 05, 2015:

Good to know. All I've ever said is "I'm sorry for your loss," or "He/she was a very caring person and I appreciated her very much." But I see what you are saying. Hopefully, this article will give others food for thought. Whenever a loved one dies, it is important to be very careful of our words, whether we are religious or not. Generally, the less said, the better.

When my cousin's mother died, it never occurred to me to use Jesus phrases. That being said, when we stood around the grave, my atheist cousin did ask that if any religious person wished to speak or pray they were welcome to do so. I offered a heartfelt prayer, mostly pertaining to those left behind. In my case, my cousins were most grateful. I know this because they thanked me a few times then and later in emails. I know they meant what they said. My first cousin, who is an atheist, is not one to mince words or spare a person's feelings---consequently, I knew she was sincere in thanking me.

Anyway, I guess my point is that spoken prayer is acceptable if the opportunity if offerred. Otherwise, one must be careful not to hurt the feelings of the non-believer. We are all very vulnerable when we are in a state of grief.

Thank you for trying to understand those who don't quite know how to communicate as well as we should. A good article you'v written here.

social thoughts from New York on May 23, 2015:

This is great! It's so true! I can't tell you how much I love your little dictionary. I'm not atheist, but I am pagan. So, hearing a lot of the Jesus stuff makes me think similar thoughts. Also, I completely agree most of these people say these things just because they don't know what else to say--part of social construct--and probably don't even know what they're saying. I wish people knew how to use non-denominational words of sympathy.

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on May 21, 2015:

As a fellow atheist, I fully understand the galling nature of such well-intentioned comments and platitudes. I wish I had read this many years ago, when I lost my dad in 1976, and my mom in 1998.

I have a rather 'standard' condolence I've been using on Face Book, in the Rainbow Bridge Cats group, a page where people post photos and receive comforting thoughts from other members when a beloved pet has passed. (The Rainbow Bridge is 'heaven' for pets, and while I don't believe in heaven, I do believe in the continuation of the life energy/soul/spirit.)

Since our pets are very much like family members, the transfer of the sentiments are equally applicable to human losses, with simply removing the references to the cat (or dog, or....)

I usually say, "May she run free in spirit over the Rainbow Bridge, and may you find peace and solace in happy memories."

Translated for the loss of a human, it would read more like, "May her spirit fly free, and may the love you had carry you through, as she will be with you forever in your heart." Or words to that effect...

It almost works better as a written sentiment in a card, though, than spoken. In person, I'd usually just say how very sorry I was, and if I knew the person, comment on some great attribute of theirs, and give the mourner a big hug...and possibly tell them that the person is with them always in spirit and memory.

Voted up, interesting, useful

Paladin_ on May 14, 2015:

You make many excellent points, Kylyssa. Hopefully, this hub will prove useful to other non-believers who will face similar situations in the future.

As for me, I always assume such expressions, while somewhat tacky (even if you believe!), are uttered with the best intentions. I think most people -- even believers -- offer more tactful condolences such as "I'm sorry for your loss" or "please let me know if there's anything I can do."

I've personally lost quite a few family members, and have actually encountered an overtly religious condolence only once. It was from a friend of my brother who was very helpful during my brother's illness. I already knew he was, shall we say, 'enthusiastically' religious, so I was somewhat prepared for him when he offered to pray for me.

I don't know if he knew whether or not I'm an atheist, but when he made that remark, I calmly replied, "Hey, knock yourself out." Sensing what I was trying to tell him, he countered that I'd be "surprised at what prayer can do," but rather than to get into a lengthy debate about what an absurd notion that is, I simply smiled, and we both moved on.

Personal anecdotes aside, I don't remember if I've read any of your other hubs, but I see you have quite a few. So now I have a few new hubs to explore! I wish you a very late welcome to HubPages from a fellow Michiganian!

Kylyssa Shay (author) from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA on May 13, 2015:

That's always appropriate and it doesn't dismiss the loss in any way.

Kylyssa Shay (author) from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA on May 13, 2015:

Too bad you did not read the page. I said that the words don't matter, only the love behind them does if the person is being genuine. And I can't believe you have reached adulthood without encountering someone who isn't genuine in expressing their condolences. Maybe it isn't common where you live but there are usually people who show up to express condolences just to be seen doing so. I notice you also missed the part where I said they wouldn't have anything appropriate to say even if religion did not exist.

Wouldn't you find it offensive if I came to your loved on's Christian funeral and told you your beliefs were wrong? Why can't I be offended if people dismiss my loss using their religion or take the opportunity to evangelize to me at my loved ones' deaths?

Andrew Petrou from Brisbane on May 13, 2015:

Its called religious tolerance. Its sad that people need lessons about it.

Also if its an offensive chore it doesn't make the grade as real tolerance. It just scrapes in as paternalistic condescension.

Claire Evans from South Africa on May 13, 2015:

I'd just say, "I'm sorry for your loss."

Kylyssa Shay (author) from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA on May 12, 2015:

I think "I love you" is a very appropriate, non-religious thing to say. What I was saying is that it's what genuine condolences really mean even if the words are couched in religious terms like "you are in our prayers" or "God has a plan." I used to take it to mean people thought my grief meant nothing when they said things like "God needed another angel" or "she's in a better place," but I've learned that the genuine people are just saying "I recognize your loss" and "I love/care about you" no matter what words are coming out of their mouths.

The people who aren't genuine, they're mostly interested in fulfilling some kind of social expectation and it doesn't matter what they say, whether they couch it in religious terms or not.

Keisha Hunter from Kingston, Jamaica on May 12, 2015:

I'm still stuck at I love you. Why can't that be genuine and how is it religious to say this to someone who is hurting? At least you worked your way through the other really religious stuff. I'm a Christian and saw where someone told a mom who lost her only child (3+ years old) to a heart condition that God knows best and I still wanted to smack her.

Kylyssa Shay (author) from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA on May 12, 2015:

Thanks for reading and sharing. I hope they find it useful. It's definitely a work in progress and I expect it to grow with time.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 12, 2015:

I'll share this with my wife and son. They will definitely appreciate it.

Related Articles